Travel writer Flick Hemming writes about Northern Italy’s hidden gem, Il Veneto
In the beautiful north-eastern Italian province of Il Veneto dwells such diversity of art, natural treasures and traditions. Amongst the fame of its romantic regional capital, Venice, the medieval city of Verona, and the magnificence of the Dolomites, there reside lesser-known gems, bursting with glorious views, food and culture, very much hidden.
But perhaps this only adds to their charm.
The northernmost gem would be the historic city of Bassano-del-Grappa, located just below the Prealps, astride the river Brenta. As you can imagine from the name, the town is known for the Italian dessert wine, grappa, which definitely has the ability to clear the palate, if the spirit doesn’t singe off your taste buds! Many a grappa shop can be found amongst the streets, selling locally distilled grappa, in a range of peculiarly shaped glass bottles. The myth is that the drink itself was named after the city, but history shows that grappa was indeed invented before the founding of the city. Strangely enough, white asparagus is another delicacy of the area, which is a rare vegetable and can be bought at the market in Piazza Garibaldi every Thursday. What may be more up the average person’s flavour-street is the gelaterie, where you don’t have to splash out much cash at all to enjoy a cone full of happiness, strolling along the Ponte Vecchio. Also known as Ponte degli Alpini, the bridge over Brenta is Bassano-del-grappa’s most famous landmark. It was originally built in 1209, but after being destroyed numerous times due to floods or French troops setting it alight, to name a few, it was redesigned in 1569 by Andrea Palladino. It has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again, most recently, after anti-fascist partisans sabotaged it in 1945 during World War II. As you walk across it you can really feel the history of this town. The atmosphere here in the evenings is creative and exciting, will little bars and restaurants open till late, and live music often being played in the Piazzi. It is satisfying to know that Shakespeare may not have made it here but the likes of Hemingway drew inspiration from this classically Italian, yet quirky town.
A little to the south-east of Bassano-del-Grappa, you can find Marostica. This charming quiet town was previously enclosed by the walls of two castles either side of the centre; the Castello Superiore at the top of the hill and Castello Inferiore situated at the bottom. The structure of the latter still remains, perched just off the main square, Piazzi di Castello, and is home to a restaurant, and annually hosts a local summer arts festival, with various events featuring music, dancing and historical re-enactments. Although they may not do student discounts, to enter the castle itself costs only EUR 5, which will take you around the interior and even up one of the original towers, where you can find some great views of the surrounding towns. However, these sights cannot compare to what is to be found up the hill, at the site of Castello Superiore. The building may no longer stand, but climbing the remaining steps of the battlements affords brilliant views from the top. Here, during daylight, you can gaze across the entire valley, to the mountains on the horizon. At night the lights of the towns and villages mean you can see a starry sky even on the cloudiest nights.
Another walled city, sometimes known as ‘The pearl of the province of Treviso’ or ‘The city of a hundred horizons’ is Asolo. Although much smaller than the others, it still lays claim to enough charm to bewitch the British poet Robert Browning into naming his last volume of poetry ‘Asolando’ after it. Its original existing walls may not all be intact, but you can still walk through the old town, up to the remaining battlements for some breathtaking views. Nestled at the edge of the mountains, it is quite the honey-pot for avid hikers, but the charm of the place lies at the heart of the town. Here the architecture and community are home to such history, culture and kindly Italians, who will interrupt their evening drink at the bar to open up their ice-cream shop for some weary young children wandering around late, in search for gelato.
Perhaps the most impressive of these ancient Italian towns is Cittadella. This is a miraculous medieval city, founded in the 13th Century as a military outpost of Padua, because it still has its exterior walls intact which are almost a mile in circumference. You can even take a tour of the ramparts around the entire perimeter of the city, affording you the most brilliant views both inside and outside the walls. It really is like touring the Roman cities of old right out of a history book with the tiny sentry posts and the encircling moat. When you descend down into the town, you can discover it is dotted with jewels of ancient and beautiful architecture that are still in use today such as the Duomo and the theatre. Neither is Cittadella lacking in restaurants and bars serving good Italian cuisine and of course gelato. Wherever you go, whether you stumble, a hot and sweaty traveller, across a city or a quiet town, the Italian gelaterie will light up your eyes with the sheer volume of ice-cream and diversity of flavours, providing you with the perfect refreshment.
Although these places may not have inspired any Shakespearean tragedies, these Italian secrets are subtly spectacular and definitely justify a trip to northern Italy.